After 10 years away from the continental stage, Switzerland were back.
A decade on from reaching the final, the Schweizer Nati returned to the Under-21 European Championship, eager to prove themselves in Europe. The tournament has often been a stepping stone for international acclaim, and with this talented crop of players led by Mauro Lustrinelli, the Swiss fancied their chances.
England were first up in Group D, a formidable opponent in an enticing clash in Koper. Even with a shaky start from the Swiss, all they needed was to find their feet, settle in and show why they were one of the best in qualifying.
Switzerland should have taken the lead through talisman Andi Zeqiri, but the Brighton striker faltered on his weak foot, his tame effort hardly testing Aaron Ramsdale in goal. England were littered with mistakes all afternoon, and while they came to no avail, the Nati were always quick to pick their pockets.
Goalless at the break, but few complaints for Lustrinelli ahead of the second half.
England barely had a sniff of goal, a far greater credit to Switzerland’s compact and disciplined shape, rather than the Three Lions’ tame and tepid attack.
As the game went on, Switzerland assumed control and dictated the game to perfection. Restricting any opposition threat, dominating the midfield battle and creating a flurry of golden opportunities, yet it remained goalless in Slovenia. Concerning as it was, the boys in red looked more likely to break the deadlock.
Even with the odd chance for Aidy Boothroyd’s England, they posed few challenges for the Swiss. Anthony Racioppi only had one key save to make from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s free kick, and while Jan Bamert was fortunate not to see red, he and Cédric Zesiger were formidable in the heart of defence.
Finally, Switzerland found that vital opening.
Admittedly, Dan Ndoye was having a quieter afternoon than usual up front, but when he picked up the ball on the edge of the box, there was only going to be outcome.
With 12 minutes to go, even Ndoye’s loose footing would not deny him of his moment. A scuffed finish looped high into the Slovenian sky, up, up and beyond the flailing fingers of Ramsdale, before nestling into the top corner.
A moment for ecstasy for the Swiss, pure joy and relief in a game which they had been in charge of since the opening minutes. A defining moment not only for this exciting young generation, but the future of Swiss football, on which the future rests on these fresh shoulders.
Switzerland deserved the win and it was clear what that meant when the final whistle below, an outburst of celebration for the Nati contingent. England were crestfallen, beaten and embarrassed in their tournament opener, but it was a massive three points for Lustrinelli’s boys.
An outstanding all-round team performance, but Bastien Toma ran the show in style from midfield. The Genk midfielder was outstanding, intercepting England’s attacks with ease and driving forward into the box with real intent, unlucky not to score when his effort cannoned off the base of the post.
Toma had already been identified as one to watch, and his display against England only reinforced that. Stand-in captain Jordan Lotomba was fantastic on the right flank, while Jérémy Guillemenot was a dangerous threat up front alongside matchwinner Ndoye.
Switzerland were nothing short of terrific in their EUROs opener, shooting to the top of Group D ahead of Portugal’s meeting with Croatia later on Thursday.
The opening game is always the most important, setting the pace for the rest of the campaign and giving a first glimpse of your qualities. In the Nati’s case, they proved why they deserve their spot at Europe’s top table, having qualified with nine wins from 10.
Lustrinelli could not have asked for a better start, and while his players will receive the plaudits for their statement victory, this is just the start.
Switzerland have just three days before their next match, when they return to the Stadion Bonifika to face Croatia. Getting off on the right foot was critical if the Swiss were to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, and after that, it is looking like a real possibility.
The job is far from finished, but look at the long-term picture. This crop of Swiss starlets has received real acclaim back home, and as they continue to prove their worth on the pitch, the future is bright for Switzerland. We could even see some of these players in contention for the senior version of the EUROs, though that may well come too soon.
For now, the headlines belong to Switzerland. This is the start of something special, as the Nati march on in Slovenia.
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